LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. On the Saturday morning before the Bassmaster Classic, traffic was beyond brisk at the Bass Pro Shops store near Atlanta.
It marked the first weekend in months when temperatures climbed into the high 60s, pushing amateur anglers, hunters and other outdoors types out of their sleepy dens. There were also three special motivators for fans of competitive angling.
Bassmaster Elite Series pros Mike Iaconelli, Boyd Duckett and Ish Monroe, all of whom will fish in this week's Bassmaster Classic in Greenville, S.C., made a four-hour visit to sign autographs, shake hands and cast select baits to lunker bass swimming inside Bass Pro Shops' giant freshwater tank.
"It's all a part of Classic week," Duckett explained to a fan about the practice days, media days, and the numerous special appearances leading up to the event. With Lake Hartwell less than 90 miles north on I-85, the Classic was never far from these angler's minds.
Half an hour before the professional anglers were scheduled to appear, the fans were lined up, patient but eager to come face to face with their favorite personality.
It was Mike Iaconelli's personality that led Joe Catorena, a 68-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, and his family to make the three-hour journey down from Cherokee, N.C. First in line, Castorena was all smiles as he leaned on his walking staff, his mobile scooter parked just behind him.
"I'm here because I like this man," Castorena said, motioning to the cover of Iaconelli's book, Fishing on the Edge. "He's a great fisherman and he really makes me laugh."
Soon Castorena would get his wish. A booming voice carried the announcement over the in-store P.A. system.
"On the count of three, let's give these anglers a proud Georgia welcome," local guide Ken Sturdivant shouted. "Go ahead and give 'em a hand. Wooooo hoooooo!"
The crowd responded as the anglers walked down the line toward their seats near the fish tank, where the three immediately began signing autograph cards, hats, and T-shirts.
"Wow, this is the hat of all hats," Monroe told Duckett as he took it from a boy. "It's got Ray Scott, and all the other guys on here are Classic winners."
Duckett simply smiled back at Monroe. Iaconelli and Duckett have each achieved the special designation while Monroe has yet to capture the sport's top prize.
With last year's Classic win still on their minds, most every fan extended belated congratulations and good luck wishes to a humbled Duckett.
Meanwhile, Iaconelli was simply too busy participating in fan photo shoots to sit down. The animated angler shook hands with fans like he was meeting the President of the United States. Then, he'd immediately jump into a family photo.
One teenage girl asked him to yell "like he did on TV." Iaconelli obliged.
Each fan received special treatment. Alabama native John Love, an Elite Series fan living in Covington, Ga., could have sworn he knew someone in Duckett's family. With wife and two boys in tow, he asked Duckett. While the name didn't ring any bells, Love was still ecstatic to meet this hero from the Heart of Dixie.
"When I heard these guys would be here today, I told the family we had to go," Love said. "We went to the Classic last year and we're going back again this year."
"My husband makes us stop at every Bass Pro Shops there is," Ross said of Saturday's journey back to North Carolina from a morning at the Georgia Aquarium. Ross' two boys were enamored with Monroe as he signed cards. "We were just lucky to be here," she said.
At 5 p.m., the meet and greet officially ended. And despite a similar morning stop in nearby Commerce, Ga., each man still seemed as jovial and appreciative as when he first arrived.
Perhaps spending eight hours acknowledging admiring fans is a little more relaxing than spending eight hours casting thousands of times attempting to win half a million dollars.